Mar 12 2010

Senator Lugar Co-Sponsors Bill to Relieve Labor Crisis in Agriculture

-Indiana Republican announces support of bipartisan AgJOBS legislation-

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today announced that Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) joined bipartisan legislation to provide America’s famers with a steady and reliable workforce. This will give much-needed relief to the nation’s ongoing agriculture labor shortage.
 
“I am very pleased to have Senator Lugar join the other 21 cosponsors of this bill,” Senator Feinstein said. “More and more people are realizing that America’s agriculture industry is supported by undocumented workers. In state after state, it’s clear that there are simply not a sufficient number of workers to carry out the necessary planting and harvesting of crops. This is true in the dairy industry, the sheep industry, in cultivating row crops and throughout all of agriculture.”

“The Ag JOBS bill has been negotiated with growers and farm workers over more than a decade,” Senator Feinstein added. “It is good policy. I believe the votes are there to pass it on the floor. Hopefully it can be part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the future.”

“This legislation is important to maintaining domestically grown supplies of healthy foods. It incentivizes employers to hire a legal workforce and streamlines procedures for agriculture workers under the existing H-2A program where U.S. workers are not available,” Senator Lugar said. “There has consistently been bipartisan support for AgJOBS legislation.”

The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS) would reform the broken H-2A seasonal worker program, provide farmers with the stable, legal workforce they deserve, and offer a pathway to citizenship for hard-working, law-abiding immigrants already employed on American farms.  

AgJOBS is a workable solution to the labor crisis facing our growers and farmers.  It is a two-part bill.  The first part meets the immediate needs of U.S. farmers by providing a one-time opportunity for experienced agricultural workers who commit to working in U.S. agriculture for the next 5 years to become citizens, if they first pay a fine and show that they are current on their taxes and undergo a criminal background check.  Importantly, these workers will have encrypted, biometric identifiers, which provides, in effect, a biometric identifier for 1.35 million people who are undocumented but in the country today.

The second part meets the long-term needs of farmers by reforming the broken H-2A visa program so that if local workers cannot be hired, farmers and growers have a legal path to hire workers to harvest their crops. 

The labor needs of the nation’s agriculture industry remain consistent. Across the country, farmers are reporting that they do not have enough labor to plant, tend and harvest their crops, and that there are not enough workers to milk cows. As a result, farmers have been forced to decrease the size of their farms and switch to less labor intensive and less profitable crops. Efforts have been made for years to get Americans to do the work but they simply won’t do it.  Here are a few examples:

  • Russ Costanza owns a 500 acre family farm in southwest Michigan. Its impact on the economy, through purchases of fertilizer, box supplies, payroll, and package supplies is about $4 million. The farm also pays $600,000 in annual local, state, and federal taxes.  In the 1960s, when Mr. Costanza’s father was running the family farm, 100 percent of the farm workers came from a local town, Benton Harbor.  Today, the town has a 40 percent unemployment rate but no one willing to work on Mr. Costanza’s farm. 
  • Wisconsin dairy producers report that they have been unable to recruit local U.S. workers to milk cows on their farms.  Tim Servais, who operates a 240-cow dairy herd outside of La Crosse, Wisconsin, says that he used to rely on local hands to work his dairy farm.  In recent years, however, Mr. Servais says: “I just couldn’t find people to do the work… It’s labor intense.  When you’re (on) a dairy farm you’re on call 24-7, 365….”

Other farmers are simply closing up shop. American famers have moved at least 84,155 acres of production to Mexico from California and Arizona alone. As a result, 22,285 jobs cultivating crops, including avocados, green onions and watermelon have also moved south of the U.S. border.

Here are just a few examples of the agriculture industry’s growing labor crisis:

  • Bob Benson, a sheep producer from Noblesville, Indiana, depends on immigrant herders who arrive on H-2A farm worker visas to care for his sheep.  Mr. Benson explains: “Retention of this key labor source [is] extremely difficult… Once you get a sheep herder trained, you don’t want to do it all over again.”  
  • Without adequate labor, the Farm Credit of Western New York has estimated that 445 dairy farms, with 7,000 on-farm jobs, statewide could shut down.  Ed Scheon, who milks 180 cows in upstate New York, has stated, “We need a stable supply of labor.  The dairy industry’s survival depends on it.”
  • The $583 million dairy industry in Indiana is at risk without a reliable workforce.  Mike McCloskey operates 12,000 cows on Fair Oaks Farm in Fair Oaks, Indiana.  He reports that immigrant workers are the only ones willing to work on his farm “when it's minus 10 degrees and when it’s 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity.”
  • In 2008, 77 percent of Texas fruit and vegetable producers reported scaling back their U.S. operations due to labor instability. More than a quarter have already invested in production outside the United States.

If Congress does not act quickly to pass AgJOBS, the United States stands to lose $5 billion to $9 billion in sales to foreign competition in the next year or two. California lost nearly $1 billion between 2005 and 2006. It is estimated that the state will lose between $1.7 billion to $3.1 billion in sales in the next year alone.

When farmers suffer, there is a ripple effect felt throughout the economy, including in farm equipment manufacturing, packaging, processing, transportation, marketing, lending and insurance. For every job lost on family farms and ranches, the country loses approximately three jobs in other agriculture-related industries.
 
Without action, our economy stands to lose an estimated $5 to $9 billion in the next year due to the loss of production of fruits and vegetables and risks having to rely   heavily on foreign food sources.

This important bipartisan bill would help farmers and boost our economy at a critical time.

More than 200 national and state agricultural organizations have signed on in support of this legislation, including Western Growers Association, the Dairy Farmers of America, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Council of Agricultural Employers, and the Chamber of Commerce.

Other supporters include: United Farm Workers, Change to Win, National Council of La Raza, ImmigrationWorks USA, America’s Voice Education Fund, League of United Latin American Citizens, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (AFL-CIO), and MAFO, a national partnership of farm worker and rural organizations.

Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) have introduced companion legislation in the House.

AgJOBS Bill Summary

Agricultural worker status: The legislation offers legal employment for up to 1.35 million agricultural workers.

  • Eligibility is limited to experienced workers who can prove employment in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days or 863 hours over the last two years; 
  • Eligible agriculture workers must commit to working in U.S. agriculture for at least 100 days per year over the next five years, or 150 days per year over the next three years;
  • 5 year sunset.

H-2A program: The bill reforms the broken H-2A farm worker program so that, if local workers cannot be hired, farmers have a legal path to hire workers.

  • No cap on H-2A visas;
  • Application process streamlined so that an employer’s request for H-2A workers moves more quickly through government approval process;
  • The Department of Labor must process H-2A applications within seven days;
  • An application to extend a worker’s stay or change employers will be approved when filed;
  • Wage standard frozen at the 2009 level for three years, after which time a new methodology that better reflects the economy takes effect;
  • Housing requirement changed to allow an employer to provide a housing allowance if there is adequate rental housing available;
  • Transportation subsidy requirement changed so that employers no longer have to apply for daily commutes of less than 100 miles or for the cost of transportation if housing is not required;
  • Employers can provide a housing voucher if state government determines adequate housing stock in the area of employment; 
  • Farmers in year –round industries, such as U.S. dairy will be able to use the H-2A farm labor program.

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